Influential Republicans in early presidential primary states believe New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is poised to once again become a frontrunner for the party’s 2016 nomination, following a news report that federal scrutiny of a bridge-closing scandal has not implicated him.
“If he had been found in the wrong, he would have been irreparably damaged,” said Matt Moore, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. “This is hugely helpful.”
Not having the episode “hanging over his head puts him back where he started from,” said Chuck Laudner, an Iowa-based strategist for former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign. “He’s still a rock star and a compelling guy, even if he is too moderate for some conservatives. We’re glad he’s on our team.”
WNBC, the NBC affiliate in New York City, reported Thursday that a federal investigation into politically-motivated lane closures last year on the George Washington Bridge has yielded no link to Christie.
The nine-month inquiry has “thus far uncovered no evidence indicating that he either knew in advance or directed the closure of traffic lanes on the span,” according to the report.
Federal officials have declined to comment on an ongoing investigation.
Christie’s wealthy friends in Republican finance circles also expressed confidence that the governor has escaped what has been seen as the leading obstacle to his potential candidacy.
“It’s great news for Chris politically,” said real-estate mogul Donald Trump in a phone interview on Friday. “It goes a long way and pretty much clears up the problem he had, which was a very big problem. A lot of Republican donors are very happy today.”
“This was always a shadow,” said former New Jersey governor Tom Kean (R), a longtime Christie mentor. “But if it’s gone, he is set to be first tier, and in a campaign where money is everything, he is the best fundraiser in the party.”
Paul J. Fishman, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, has been looking into the role in the affair played by Christie, his predecessor as the state’s federal prosecutor, for much of the year, and issued a flurry of grand jury subpoenas to Christie aides and state Republican officials.
Several lanes approaching the bridge were closed last September. Emails and text messages from then-Christie administration officials have shown that the traffic snarl was political retribution against a Democratic mayor who did not endorse Christie’s reelection bid.
Christie seized on the news report Thursday when he appeared on WKXW-FM radio, a New Jersey station.
“I'm not surprised,” he said in an interview. “But, you know, you're always grateful to hear that the things that I said appear like they're going to be confirmed if these reports are accurate.”
National Democrats are skeptical that the news report means Christie will suddenly escape being tied to the lane closures.
“A year later no one can answer the simple question: why did the Christie Administration order the lane closure?” said Michael Czin, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee. “We still don't know why some of Governor Christie's closest aides and allies deliberately put lives at risk last year. And we don't know what all the investigations will ultimately find. But what we do know is that Chris Christie established a culture of intimidation that allowed this to happen.”
Christie, as this year’s chairman of the Republican Governors Association, has been busy traveling the country in recent months and raising money for GOP candidates. The position previously served as a launching pad for Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican presidential nominee.
Stops this year have included visits to South Carolina, Iowa, and New Hampshire, all critical states in the early campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
Some young former Christie aides have taken campaign jobs in New Hampshire, where Christie has stumped multiple times. The moves suggest he and his allies are bolstering key relationships ahead of a run.
Colin Reed, a former Christie spokesman, is managing Republican Scott Brown’s campaign against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Matt Mowers, a former Christie campaign aide, is executive director of the state GOP.
William Palatucci, a Christie political adviser, said Christie’s focus “remains squarely on 2014.”
“We have a lot of work to do over the next 45 days to finish the job he started in December,” Palatucci said. “Nothing is going to keep him from that mission.”
Christie said at a news conference on Thursday that he will make a final decision on a presidential campaign at “the beginning of next year.”
His path ahead in a possible campaign through the Republican presidential primaries is far from cleared, with many conservative leaders and activists still wary of the blue-state governor’s sharp tongue and what they describe as centrist impulses.
“Movement conservatives that I know do not believe he qualifies as a conservative,” said Morton Blackwell, a Virginian and member of the Republican National Committee. “He has appointed non-conservative judges and he doesn’t do favors for conservative organizations.”
“It’s clear he’s going nowhere with the conservative base due to his record,” said Steve Deace, a conservative talk-radio host in Iowa. “He’d be a strong candidate — for the Democrats.”
Christie’s tensions with New York gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino (R) have also drawn fire from tea party activists who say Christie should do more to raise money for him.
"We don't pay for landslides and we don't invest in lost causes," Christie said in July when asked about Astorino’s campaign.
Astorino, who is challenging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), has criticized Christie for being too politically cozy with his Democratic foe, and called on Christie to consider stepping down from his national campaign post.
Christie’s potential rivals, such as Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) and Gov. Rick Perry (R-Tex.) have made a point of rallying behind Astorino. Perry will host a fundraiser for him later this month; Jindal will do the same in October.
A poll last month by Suffolk University and USA Today had Christie in second place among Iowa voters who lean Republican and plan to participate in the presidential caucuses. He trailed former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
Meanwhile, problems remain for Christie at home. New Jersey’s credit ratings have been downgraded several times since he took office, a $2.4 billion casino that opened two years ago has shuttered in Atlantic City, N.J., and a state legislative committee continues to investigate the bridge incident.
A clash with Democrats over whether New Jersey should take part in a cap-and-trade program to combat climate change has been another issue that has flared up this month, with Christie resistant to having the state join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
Christie has called the climate-change program “useless.” He blasted state Democrats on Thursday for how they have handled their investigation and claimed that leaks from the panel have been used to hurt his political standing.
“If they can’t run their own ship, they shouldn’t be running an investigation,” he told reporters. “These are people who are addicted to MSNBC and the front page of the paper and nobody wants to cover it anymore.”
This post has been updated.